A Munich court has found the main defendant in a high-profile neo-Nazi trial guilty of murder over the killing of 10 people — most of them migrants.
The victims were gunned down between 2000 and 2007 in a case that shocked Germany.
Judges have sentenced Beate Zschaepe to life in prison.
The 43-year-old was arrested in 2011, shortly after her two accomplices were found dead in an apparent murder-suicide.
Together with the men, Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Boehnhardt, she had formed the National Socialist Underground (NSU), which pursued an ideology of white racial supremacy by targeting migrants, mostly of Turkish origin.
Authorities for years failed to attribute the killings and two bomb attacks to a far-right group, instead investigating non-existent gangland links.
The case has prompted accusations of institutional racism in the country’s security agencies.
Four men were also found guilty of supporting the group in various ways and sentenced to prison terms of between two and a half and 10 years.
Presiding judge Manfred Goetzl told a packed Munich courtroom that Zschaepe’s guilt weighed particularly heavily, meaning she is likely to serve at least a 15-year sentence.
She showed no emotion as Judge Goetzl read out her sentence. A number of far-right activists attending the trial clapped when one of the co-accused, Andre Eminger, received a lower sentence than expected.
Zschaepe’s group evaded arrest for almost 14 years, thanks to a network of supporters and repeated mistakes by German security agencies.
Anti-migrant sentiment that underpinned the NSU’s ideology was particularly strong in eastern Germany during the early 1990s, when Mundlos, Boehnhardt and Zschaepe were in their late teens and early 20s. The period saw a string of attacks against migrants and the rise of far-right parties.
Anti-racism campaigners have drawn parallels between that period and the violence directed toward asylum-seekers in Germany in recent years, which has seen the emergence of the far-right Alternative for Germany party.
The case against Zschaepe hinged heavily on the question of whether judges would hold her equally culpable for the killings as her two dead accomplices, even though there was no evidence she had been physically present during the attacks.
Her lawyers sought to portray Zschaepe as naive woman who played no active role in the killings, bomb attacks and bank robberies committed by Mundlos and Boehnhardt.
Zschaepe rarely spoke during the five-year trial, refusing to answer questions from lawyers representing the victims’ families. Towards the end, she expressed regret for the families’ loss and described herself as “morally guilty” but urged the court not to convict her “for something that I neither wanted nor did”.
The NSU case has already become a firm part of German popular culture, serving as the basis for books, a Golden Globe-winning film and a Netflix series.
However, Barbara John, the government’s ombudswoman for the victims’ families, said many in Germany do not want to know the details of the case.
“That’s true, too, for immigrants who want to protect themselves psychologically from the knowledge that they live in a country which couldn’t protect them,” she told reporters.
Speaking ahead of the verdict, Ms John said the trial could help send a signal not just to far-right extremists but also to the country’s security agencies, which for years failed to consider a possible far-right motive in the 10 killings and two bombs attacks that took place across the country.
Instead, police focused on whether the victims had ties to organised crime — a line of investigation for which there was never any evidence.
Families of the victims said Tuesday that the suspicion directed toward their loved ones shook their faith in the German justice system.
“The investigation went in the wrong direction, not due to the failure of individuals but due to institutional racism,” said Alexander Hoffmann, a lawyer representing victims of a 2004 bomb attack in Cologne.
He urged federal prosecutors to continue investigating the NSU’s wider network of supporters, believed to be much broader than the four men on trial with Zschaepe.